Fantastic Fest Review: ‘AMERICAN HONEY’ – a sweet road trip without a map

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Jame Cole Clay // Film Critic

AMERICAN HONEY | 163 min | R
Director: Andrea Arnold
Cast: Sasha Lane, Shia LaBeouf and Riley Keough

To understand living on the fringe of life, it’s almost as if you have to experience it first hand. Traveling on an endless highway, a crowded van and dingy motels is where director Andrea Arnold places you in her sprawling fourth feature AMERICAN HONEY.

This coming-of-age drama documents a group of wayward youth who spend their days traveling like a band of gypsies for a brand of authenticity that has the architecture of a Richard Linklater film, but lacks the poignancy to feel more than a 2-hour and 48-minute journey, complete with a killer soundtrack and moments of visual beauty.

Pulsating with EDM and rap music throughout, Arnold fills the film with a youth-like euphoria of living in the moment and leaving the problems for tomorrow. Just mere minutes into the film is where we find 18-year-old Star (newcomer Sasha Lane) wandering into a small-town Oklahoma Wal-Mart with her two siblings when the care-free anthem “We Found Love” by Calvin Harris and Rihanna plays over the speakers. A dance-off led by Jake (Shia LeBeouf) draws Star into tight-knit group of vagabonds. She’s running towards a new kind of love– something she will never find from the abuse she experiences at home. The entire film is a hypnotic dream that’s as big as Rihanna’s voice, yet Star’s dreams only go as far as owning a trailer of her own.

Arnold’s uses needle drops to pull the audience into the moment, in order to be present and not focus on much plotting. As Star mouths the lyrics “I make my own money, so I spend it how I like,” there is hope for her despite the imminent threat of danger could be around the corner through her increasingly shady encounters. Arnold celebrates being young with the endless imagination of a teenager, but the trappings of societal pressures prevent those youthful dreams from becoming a reality.

The cast of AMERICAN HONEY. Courtesy of A24.

The cast of AMERICAN HONEY. Courtesy of A24.

The point is to just exist with Jake and Star on their van and to appreciate the small fleeting moments of ripping a joint or taking a shot of cheap vodka. With the group of misfits, each have their own quirks, and schemes to survive. To the audience, the sweaty van is a jarring place to be; for Star, however, this quickly becomes home.

The possibilities of Star’s life are endless, but she has very little to look forward to besides the possibility of scamming a suburban housewife into buying outdated magazines and her impromptu sexual encounters with the unpredictable (and somewhat violent) Jake. Arnold and the crew actually scoured the country for two months stuck in the van, but this is a road trip without much of a narrative map; it’s up to the audience to stick pins in the meaningful moments.

AMERICAN HONEY uses a raw sexual energy that never condemns the characters for their hedonistic actions. The only thing tethering the group to any semblance of rules is Krystal (Riley Keough), who wears a skimpy confederate flag bikini, takes no crap and even has the ability to tame LaBeouf’s Jake.

Like Harmony Korine’s SPRING BREAKERS you will either be on AMERICAN HONEY’s wave length, or find it a frivolous look at millennials who only care about the superficial things in life. Despite an indulgent run-time and extensive use of trap music, AMERICAN HONEY is about the bonds between a surrogate family and indulging on the sweeter things in life.

AMERICAN HONEY screens again at Fantastic Fest on Tuesday at 2 p.m., and opens next month.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.

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